If you'd like to read the first part of this story, it's in my right sidebar under I Like To Write.
The garage door chugged open in front of Tamara. There were the kids' bikes and scooters and helmets in a tangle along the west wall. There were Dave's tools on a pegboard and his workbench littered with washed butter tubs and stray screws and rolls of masking tape.
She pulled in slowly and sat, her forehead on the steering wheel. The house was oddly quiet. Normally, from there, she'd hear the pounding of small feet, screeching, maybe laughter.
How could she go inside? How could she face Caitlyn and Eli and explain where she'd been? That she'd run away not from them, but from their neediness. They wouldn't be able to sort through the morass of reasons why she'd gone. She'd have to simplify, lie a little.
As she was pulling her plastic grocery bag of clothes from the car, Craig stepped into the garage behind her.
"Oh, hey," he said. "I thought you were gonna be Dave."
"Nope. He's with Joshua."
"How is the little guy?"
Her voice caught as she said, "Um, not so good." She dropped the plastic bag to the concrete and pressed her fingers to her eyes, trying to stop unstoppable tears.
Craig took a few steps toward her and went to pull her into a hug.
She pushed him away. She shook her head and stooped to retrieve the bag. Next to her, the car ticked. Rain had begun snapping the driveway. She wasn't even sure what time of day it was, but thought maybe early afternoon.
She knew she was a mess. Dirty. Rumpled. Smelly. Still wearing Cornelia's black skirt and turtleneck, which were far too whimsical for her or for this situation.
"I need to go see the kids," she told Craig.
He stuffed his hands in his shorts pockets and took a few steps backwards. "So, where were you, anyway?"
She cocked her head and squinted at him, weighing whether he deserved an answer. She decided he didn't. "Far, far from here," she said. She turned and went to the door. She grabbed the cool, brass knob and filled her lungs with air.
When she entered the house, she could hear the TV's faint squeals and murmurings. She looped her bag around the banister and moved toward the back rooms. Her heart fluttered. Her stomach hurt. The last time she was here she'd been pregnant. She remembered vomiting into the plant. Being so sick of the kids she thought she might burst right out of her skin. Which she supposed she had. Figuratively.
The house was cold, the central A/C blasting. She would've had the windows open to pull in the damp air and sound of the rain.
When she got to the family room, she saw Caitlyn and Eli watching Sponge Bob and a teenage girl on the couch with them, her knees tucked under her chin. When the girl looked up, Tamara realized it was Megan, Theresa's daughter. But instead of recognition, Megan's eyes brimmed with something...contempt? fear? Tamara couldn't think about it then. She said quietly, "I'm home."
Caitlyn and Eli turned. Eli ran toward her and jumped in her arms, buried his face in her neck. Caitlyn half turned, half watched TV. Distractedly, she said, "Mommy."
When Eli pulled back far enough to see her face, he was grinning. He said, "It worked! It worked!"
"What worked, honey?" Tamara's legs were weak, so weak she had to sit down so Eli straddled her lap. She noticed that his hair was a little long at the ears and food was crusted around his mouth. Her throat glutted and she swallowed hard several times. She wished Megan would turn off Sponge Bob, with his ridiculous laugh and the annoying sound effects.
"Joshua's plan!" Eli crowed. "Joshua said if he falled and hurted himself that you'd come back to take care a him."
Everything within Tamara sank. She sank and sank and sank until she was a mass of wrinkled black clothes on the floor with hair and squeezed shut eyeballs. She wanted a gin and tonic. Oh, how she wanted a gin and tonic in that moment. Instead, she held Eli's wrists and, unable to look him in the face, said, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so, sorry."